Power Of One

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An Iranian Shiite cleric casts his vote at a polling station set up in a mosque in the holy city of Qom

A reverential hush filled the heavily guarded Islamic community center in downtown Tehran when Iran's Supreme Leader arrived to cast his vote last week in the country's parliamentary elections. "Allah bless the Prophet and his descendants," cried some fellow mullahs and government officials, in a traditional invocation. With his flowing robe, clerical turban and solemn visage, Ayatullah Ali Khamenei seemed to radiate a sacred otherworldliness, at least in the eyes of his followers, even as he undertook the mundane task of placing a blue card listing his candidate preferences into the slot of a cloth-covered ballot box. "I am grateful to Allah for the blessing of being able to vote," he told assembled reporters. In a rebuke to Washington, which questioned the elections' fairness, Khamenei added, "No one can prevent our enthusiastic youth from taking part in the destiny of their country." As he turned to leave the voting station, Khamenei allowed himself a satisfied grin.

Khamenei, who smiles about as often as did his dour predecessor, Ayatullah Ruhollah Khomeini, had appealed for a big turnout. It may be days before anyone knows the exact tallies from elections that Khamenei, despite his upbeat words, knows alienated many Iranians, young and old. But whatever the precise totals, the results are likely to hand Khamenei's conservative political allies a healthy majority in the 290-seat Majlis, dealing a devastating blow to reformists who swept into the assembly four years ago trumpeting an era of democratic change.

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For now, the power struggle in Iran — mullah warfare, some Iranians call it — is over, and the conservatives have won. The big winner is Khamenei, 64, who played a decisive role in putting his conservative allies back in power. The main loser is reformist President Mohammed Khatami, who will serve the last year of his two terms of office facing a hostile parliament and the possibility that conservatives will win the presidency in 2005. It's a prospect that fills Khamenei's allies with glee. "A quarter of a century after the triumph of the Islamic revolution," boasts Mohammed Kazem Anbarlui, editor of the conservative daily Resalat, "we are at the height of power."

The reformists' defeat owes partly to the fact that most of them didn't even run. The Khamenei-appointed Guardian Council, a powerful oversight body consisting of six clerics and six Islamic jurists, barred hundreds of reformists, including 87 members of the Majlis, from standing as candidates on various grounds, such as undermining the authority of the Supreme Leader. Among them was Reza Khatami, deputy speaker and brother of Iran's President. Ten reformist parties, including Reza Khatami's Islamic Iran Participation Front, then pulled out of the balloting, saying they could not run in "illegal and unjust" polls. President Khatami politely asked Khamenei to review the disqualifications, but the Guardian Council still barred some 2,000 candidates.

Under the Islamic Republic's constitution, Khamenei is supposed to be above politics. But he has routinely supported conservative moves — many reformists charge that he has secretly directed them — to quash the pro-democracy movement. He has relied mostly on his legal powers as Supreme Leader, which are greater than Khatami's. He has full authority over the Iranian armed forces, Revolutionary Guards, intelligence services, TV and radio stations and charitable foundations, and he has access to revenues from Iran's $24 billion oil industry.

Besides the Guardian Council, Khamenei appoints other key bodies like the Expediency Council, a sort of Iranian House of Lords, and the Iranian judiciary. In the past four years, together they have shut down reformist newspapers, jailed outspoken journalists and overturned every major reform bill approved by the Majlis. Student demonstrations protesting the actions have been suppressed by the security forces, leaving among young people a trail of disillusionment with Khamenei — and with Khatami for not speaking out or resigning in protest.

Years ago, Khamenei was an underground revolutionary. He later served as the Islamic republic's second President, guiding the country through a long, bloody war after Saddam Hussein invaded Iran in 1980. During that time, he was maimed by a bomb set off by Iranian terrorists that paralyzed his right arm. Khamenei these days is an enigma to many Iranians. His down-to-earth image clashes with his hard-line pronouncements against the U.S. and Israel. Before the balloting, he called on Iranians to give America a "punch in the mouth" by going to the polls.

But Khamenei is also a pragmatist. Although he has allowed pro-democracy politicians to be crushed, he has shied away from stifling reform urges altogether. Satellite TV, Internet access, expanded political debate, looser restrictions on women's dress and mixing of the sexes are reform-movement achievements that Khamenei has allowed to stand. He has presided over the most significant opening to the outside world since the revolution. In December, with Khamenei's approval, the government signed a protocol with the International Atomic Energy Agency allowing inspections of Iran's nuclear facilities — a sea change from the republic's long standoff with the West.

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